Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


cybersphere: a discussion with Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard is perhaps the most important theorist of the "after modern". Though he says himself he has "nothing to do with postmodernism", many interpret him as (along with Jean-François Lyotard) as among the most important prophets of a truly "postmodern" era. His works have attracted high praise and derision all over the world. Among his most important works are: In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, Fatal Strategies, America, Cool Memories, The Transparency of Evil, The Illusion of the End, The Mirror of Production, Forget Foucault, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Symbolic Exchange and Death, The Perfect Crime, and most recently Paroxysm.

by Claude Thibaut

Mankind face to the machine and to its own reflection: corollary of the new technologies' boom. Jean Baudrillard deals with the universe of virtuality,the consequences of which are not so virtua l...

CLAUDE THIBAUT: From your point of view, what potential do the new technologies offer?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD: I don't know much about this subject. I haven't gone beyond the fax and the automatic answering machine. I have a very hard time getting down to work on the screen because all I see there is a text in the form of an image which I have a hard time entering. With my typewriter, the text is at a distance; it is visible and I can work with it. With the screen, it's different; one has to be inside; it is possible to play with it but only if one is on the other side, and immerses oneself in it. That scares me a little, and Cyberspace is not of great use to me personally.

CLAUDE THIBAUT: In what domains can these new technologies be used: communication, education, simulation? Are they likely to modify the attitudes and behavior of those who use them?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD: I think that it will no doubt explode in all directions, because this is a sprawling medium, and it will grow in all of the domains. But do the ends remain the same; that is doubtless the main problem. Let’s take pedagogy for example: doesn't information kill education? I have friends who are experiencing this in the domain of writing, and for my part I find that their behavior changes in a way. The possibility of indefinitely adjusting the correct version creates a sort of fantasy of perfection of the text which gives the latter another allure, another construction than those which their earlier writing possessed. The result of this quest for perfection remains problematic. We have the impression that the machine operated beyond the ends of the writing.

CLAUDE THIBAUT: Is there a distortion of the personality?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD: Perhaps there is a distortion, not necessarily one that will consume one's personality. It is possible that the machine can metabolize the mind.

CLAUDE THIBAUT: Isn't interactive communication on the Internet in particular a big novelty in the world of media?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD: There is a considerable expansion of all of the possibilities, but is it a good thing in the absolute to follow through with these? Isn't there a sort of wall or overkill? Communication seems to exhaust itself in the practical function of contact, and the content seems to retreat: the network, rather than the network's protagonists, is given priority. This last becomes an end in itself.

CLAUDE THIBAUT: Some people seem to be excited about videoconferencing. How can this desire to see each other to communicate be explained?

In a real face to face encounter, there is a complex relation, in which each person is an actor at once both present and absent. In on-screen discussion, there is only an alternating presence of one and the other. Expression is more targeted, more functional and completely disembodied. It is doubtless suitable for professional kinds of conferences. No doubt, the videoconference offers the attraction of fighting against this disembodiment. It's a way of adding to the presence..

CLAUDE THIBAUT: Do you think, as Monsieur Virilio does, that there are very great risks in developing the Internet?

Monsieur Virilio is right that there is a risk of the subject being taken hostage, in a way, by his own tool. However, I do not see a doom-laden phenomenon there. I would side more with Leo Scheer, when he says that virtuality, being itself virtual, does not really happen. To make the network operate for the network by a machine whose end is to operate at all costs, is not to give it a will. One lives in the very Rousseauistic idea that there is in nature a good use for things that can and must be tried. I don't think that it is possible to find a politics of virtuality, a code of ethics of virtuality because virtuality virtualizes politics as well: there will be no politics of virtuality, because politics has become virtual; there will be no code of ethics of virtuality, because the code of ethics has become virtual, that is, there are no more references to a value system. I am not making a nostalgic note there: Virtuality retranscribes everything in its space; in a way, human ends vanish into thin air in virtuality. It is not a doom-laden danger in the sense of an explosion, but rather a passage through an indefinable space. A kind of radical uncertainty. One communicates, but as far as what is said, one does not know what becomes of it. This will become so obvious that there will no longer even be any problems concerning liberty or identity. There will no longer be any way for them to arise; those problems will disappear a little below the horizon. The media neutralizes everything, including, in a way, power, and virtuality itself is not able to turn itself into a political power..

CLAUDE THIBAUT: What do you think about the notion that Bill Gates does not have any real power?

One could not contest that Bill Gates has materiel strength and a power, which appear as a form of mythology in the sense that it has no relation whatsoever with the political relation, and that it abolishes traditional structures . Furthermore, this thing is quite capable of destroying itself. The sprawling monster can develop linearly in an exponential way, then fall into a chaotic zone of turbulence leading to accident, a sort of prevention and precaution against the omnipotence of the system which turns the meanings of things upside down. Accident can appear as silent resistance, a sort of negative self-regulation of the machine. In fact, virtuality is perhaps not a universal form of life, but a singularity.

CLAUDE THIBAUT: Isn't this radical uncertainty brought about by virtual reality likely to challenge man's vision of himself and the world?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD: Certainly, because it is the system of representation that is at issue. The image that he has of himself is virtualized. One is no longer in front of the mirror; one is in the screen, which is entirely different. One finds himself in a problematic universe, one hides in the network, that is, one is no longer anywhere. What is fascinating and exercises such an attraction is perhaps less the search for information or the thirst for knowledge than the desire to disappear, the possibility of dissolving and disappearing into the network.

CLAUDE THIBAUT: After all that has just been said, what about happiness?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD: Happiness is essential for both the individual and the group. The possibility of having available all the means to attain it creates a kind of electronic "high", a kind of happiness so evident that it ends up having no more raison d’Etre. There, there is a general problem of critical mass of the means which puts an end to ends. What happens when everything has been realized in modernity, when everything is virtually given? The question is crucial: where does one go from there? That is the problem: from the moment the subject is perfectly realized, it automatically becomes the object, and there is panic. I am not sure that with the virtual world we are moving closer still to happiness, because virtuality only gives possibilities virtually, while taking back the reference and the density of things, their meaning. It gives you everything, and subtly, surreptitiously it takes everything away at the same time. It is a game of which one does not know the rule[s]. One loses what one wins and vice versa. All that one can do is refuse to play, but it's not easy in our times. Books and writing will subsist in a kind of parallel existence; they will only be more precious for it because they will serve as a reference. It is difficult to oppose the virtual world because it harnesses all the polarity of the system, the positive and negative poles; it absorbs everything. One can hope that there is in each of us something singular that will allow the development of a reverted, reverting defense reflex.

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